Boris Johnson’s new 10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution is a landmark moment in the UK’s journey to net zero emissions, but its success is not yet guaranteed
It is in many ways an unprecedented moment. Plenty of Prime Ministers have sketched out their grand ‘white heat’, ‘no alternative’, ‘third way’ economic visions for the country. Countless Ministers have scratched around for a couple more policies to turn an eight strategy into a satisfying 10 point plan. Several governments have even had a punt at tackling the climate crisis, unveiling Clean Growth Strategies and the like. But Boris Johnson’s announcement this week of a 10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution is the first time a world leader has not just talked about the desire to bring down the curtain on the fossil fuel age within three decades, but has explained, in some detail, how he intends to do it.
Gone are the rhetorical flourishes and hymning of humanity’s “Promethean spirit” to be replaced by firm commitments to end the sale of internal combustion engine, create markets for heat pumps and hydrogen, and decarbonise entire industries.
It is hard to overstate the significance of all this, even if 2020’s groaning news cycle means the announcement has struggled to secure the bulletin-leading mainstream media coverage it merits. This is the Paris Agreement as actionable infrastructure strategy, the translation of vague promises of climate action into robust policy frameworks.
The Prime Minister of one of the world’s most influential economies – of the crucible of the first industrial revolution – is setting out the plan for the next industrial revolution, and it promises to be the fastest industrial revolution in history. He is doing so just weeks after the President-elect of the US, the President of China, and the leaders of the EU all promised that they would do likewise in short order. The investment signals are explicit. Anyone betting against the net zero transition becoming the defining business issue of the age is effectively saying that the bulk of the world’s most powerful governments and corporates will fail to deliver on their stated ambitions. They may yet fall short of their goals, but the risk equations for businesses and investors are fast shifting in favour of the net zero transition accelerating from this point on.
The best parts of the new 10 point plan both draw upon the transition already underway and seek to catalyse it further, creating a feedback loop that should mobilise billions of pounds of investment and create millions of jobs.
For example, the headline-grabbing commitment to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 takes the similar commitments already made by many leading corporates and levels the playing field, sending the clearest signal yet to auto manufacturers that there is no choice but to deliver cost-competitive, high performance EVs. The confirmation that a new wave of offshore wind and nuclear development is on the cards should, with the right policy framework, serve to lower the cost of capital still further and crowd private sector investment into every corner of the UK’s clean power network. The new target for heat pump deployment sends a similar market signal and hints strongly that enabling policies are on the way for the nascent market. The increased funding for carbon capture and hydrogen infrastructure, as well as the promise of more R&D support for green aviation and shipping, demonstrates the government is serious about tackling hard to abate emissions and creating new Zero Carbon Clusters.
There is so much to like here and it is easy to see why the plan has received a broadly positive welcome from the UK’s various green business groups. It should also be noted that the government deserves plaudits for taking some genuine political risks. The idea that you will not be able to buy a new petrol and diesel car within a decade – that you have likely bought your penultimate internal combustion engine – is already facing co-ordinated criticism from the usual suspects. Some of the Prime Minister’s favourite newspapers and long-standing allies are warning his embrace of the ‘eco-woke’ will alienate his base. He should ignore their concern-trolling. There is ample polling evidence that voters right across the country want to see a bolder climate agenda and are supportive of the transition to clean technologies. But it still takes political nerve to pursue an inherently radical and disruptive agenda. The words may not come easily to business leaders angry at the looming Brexit uncertainty or environmental campaigners wary of the Prime Minister’s historic inconsistencies, but Boris Johnson deserves immense credit for delivering this plan.
That is not to say the plan is perfect, because it is far from it. Some absolutely crucial components of the net zero transition obviously missed the 10 point cut-off. There is nothing on resource efficiency and the circular economy, nothing on food and diet, and nothing on onshore renewables and marine power. The just transition and skills agenda is notable by its absence, which represents a serious oversight given the potential of skills shortages to undermine green projects and the very real risk of a backlash from those industries and communities that feel locked out of the transition.
More broadly the perennial question of what to do about the high carbon infrastructure that is still in the pipeline is ducked, while there is little on public engagement, and nothing on the governance and enforcement reforms that those who have looked closely at the barriers to decarbonisation insist are essential.
There are also legitimate questions about the level of ambition. The government insists the comparison between the £12bn of funding commitments announced in the plan – only £4bn of which is actually new – and the €40bn of green recovery spending announced by Germany this summer is unfair. There is some truth in this. The German package includes payments to help the coal industry make the transition to clean energy and Number 10 will argue the UK has a better decarbonisation track record than its European neighbours and is well placed to leverage in private capital for new green infrastructure. It is also true that policy measures, such as the ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars, are often far more important than government subsidies in driving clean tech development and deployment. The amount of funding provided is not the only measures of success.
But equally, Johnson’s announcement of £500m for hydrogen projects pales in comparison to the €7bn Germany has earmarked for its national hydrogen strategy. Moreover, £1bn for CCS is the precise same level that was promised a decade ago, £20m for green maritime technology is a drop in the ocean, and while the extension of the Green Homes Grant scheme is welcome the government is still failing to deliver the single policy that would deliver the economic and environmental gains: the designation of building upgrades as a long term, properly funded national infrastructure strategy. In some key areas where the market is failing to drive emissions reductions at sufficient pace the government’s approach is still too light touch.
The tight spending reins also perhaps explain a surprising omission from the plan: the absence of the kind of big, shiny exemplar projects that Johnson traditionally loves to attach his name to. There is mention of plans for a hydrogen village or town. But proposals for a net zero pathfinder city or the electrification of the UK bus fleet or renewables on every school or the foundation of a Green Investment Bank are still yet to gain traction, despite the obvious popular appeal.
The 10 Point Plan may provide evidence that government engagement with the climate crisis has taken a giant leap forward in the past couple of years, including within the Treasury. But privately green advocates within government would accept that parts of the Treasury are not yet fully sold on the urgency of the climate crisis and the basic Keynesian need for a full blown stimulus. This may be understandable given the historically poor fiscal situation. But it seems that no matter how low borrowing costs get, how bleak the economic outlook, and how existential the climate threat, the deficit hawks still maintain the tightest of grips on the psyche of Treasury mandarins and Conservative chancellors.
The good news is that there are ample opportunities over the coming year to correct these various flaws and ensure the 10 Point Plan mobilises promised investment and genuinely puts the UK on track to net zero emissions. The Spending Review, the Energy White Paper, the National Infrastructure Strategy, the NDC to be submitted to the UN, the review of the Fifth and Sixth Carbon Budget, the Transport Decarbonisation Strategy, the Green Heat Strategy, the post-Brexit farming subsidy reforms, and myriad other policy choices large and small each present a major test of the government’s commitment to Johnson’s net zero vision. There is the potential to take the blueprint provided by the 10 Point Plan and build something truly world-leading.
The bad news is that with the 10 Point Plan lacking key details in so many areas it could yet lead to the rickety construction of a series of conflicting and underpowered policies that mean the government’s net zero cathedral ends up looking better on paper than in practice. A shaky edifice that could easily be torn down by the culture war-stoking opponents of climate action. Cynics will note that for all his warm words the PM has a long track record of selling ambitious plans that fail to fully materialise.
The hope is that this time is different. That Johnson and the wider government have fully absorbed that this is the animating project for a post-Brexit Britain – a realisation no doubt aided by the ejection of Donald Trump from the White House. There are reasons to think this hope is justified, even if immense challenges remain.
As is so often the case with climate action, the latest crucial milestone is once again just a starting point for the next part of a perilous journey. But the difference this time is the government has said precisely where it wants to go and how it wants to get there. What today’s commitment shows is that a rapid economic and technological transformation may be unprecedented, but it can be done. Now Johnson needs to harness every corner of the state and every part of the economy to deliver his promised Green Industrial Revolution. And in doing so he needs to take the fight to those detractors who wish to derail a transition that every one of the UK’s major allies and competitors is already embarked upon. He could do worse than channel one of his Conservative predecessors and forcefully argue that this industrial transformation is both essential and in the national interest – that there is no alternative.
Read more: businessgreen.com